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Do we need monuments?

05 of January '21

A dismantled statue of King Leopold II in Antwerp. A toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. A statue of Winston Churchill in London on which an "invisible hand" wrote that the former British prime minister was a racist. The slogan "Black lives matter" on the pedestal of Warsaw's Tadeusz Kosciuszko monument. The voice of movements for social change forces us to reflect on the problems of the modern world, including - the role of monuments in public space and forms of commemoration.

"Monuments do not exist in a vacuum".

Monumentsare not neutral. A monument is created as a manifestation of the beliefs of a specific group of stakeholders who want to commemorate ideas and values of particular importance to them in this way. "A monument does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it ever itself solely a document of only its own existence," - Jacek Olender wrote. However, the contextualization of monuments leads to, so difficult for many to accept, the creation of spaces for renegotiating their meaning.

Grób Nieznanego

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the surviving fragment of the arcade of the Saxon Palace in Warsaw.
A memorial strongly embedded in the spatial and historical context of the location

photo: Blazej Ciarkowski

Edward Colston was a politician and philanthropist who supported schools, shelters, churches and hospitals. To the British public, who named institutions and streets after him, he was a hero and benefactor. But what did the heirs of those on whose injustice Colston made his fortune feel? The philanthropist's sources of income - the exploitation of African colonies and the slave trade - were no secret to anyone. Despite this, the voices of Bristol's black community to remove the statue were ignored for years. It wasn't until June 2020 that Colston's image disappeared from public space. Demonstrators first doused the monument with paint, then toppled it and threw it into a canal.

At the same time in Antwerp, red paint covered a statue depicting King Leopold II. The ruler, who helped Brussels flourish, was responsible for genocide in the Congo Free State under his rule. The city authorities did not wait for the "street" to take matters into their own hands, and the bronze statue of the monarch shared Colston's fate. Leopold II was dismantled. The official reason was the need for restoration, but it is doubtful that it will be returned to its pedestal once the restorers have completed their work.

negotiating meanings

Removing "questionable" monuments from public space is one possible strategy. Another is to add new content and a contemporary narrative. Bristol authorities have announced that Colston will not return to a representative pedestal, and the statue's form will be modified. The ropes and chains that were used to topple the statue will be conserved, as well as the remnants of the paint with which it was daubed. As a result, it will not only "tell" the story of the slave-trading philanthropist, but also the struggle for memory.

Preserving the traces of the struggle against the dominant official narrative is nothing new. On the façade of the Tribunal Palace in Kalisz, the inscription "To restore dignity to the law", which was painted by an opposition activist in 1981, has been preserved. Similar cases can be found in abundance - from comments on the walls of ancient Pompeii to anti-war inscriptions in the cells of Richmond Castle or the often vulgar texts written by Red Army men on the walls of the Reichstag.

Pomnik J. Korczaka
w parku Świętokrzyskim w Warszawie

The monument to J. Korczak in Swietokrzyski Park in Warsaw - an example of literalism based on realism and elaborate symbolism

photo: Błażej Ciarkowski

One of the most interesting examples of an attempt to renegotiate the meaning of a monument is the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Although the name of its patron, Joseph Stalin, has long since disappeared from the facade, many people still demand the demolition of the edifice. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, Czeslaw Bielecki proposed transforming the Stalinist moloch into SocLand, a museum of communism, and thus redefining it. Destruction, however unlikely, is a far easier solution than renegotiating the object's symbolic meaning.

What to commemorate, how to commemorate

What if, decades from now, future generations start tearing down "our" monuments? They will consider "our" values wrong and harmful? They will topple the bronze monuments of "our" heroes? We can accept this as a natural turn of events, or... think about the form of commemoration.

A monument represents not only certain specific ideas, but also - a certain artistic value. In addition to objects that are associated with authentic artifacts, such as fragments of the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto or the preserved arcades of the Saski Palace, we are dealing with new creations. They often represent a conservative trend (realistic, academic) or seemingly modern (abstract and/or metaphorical). Unfortunately, in both cases we are often dealing with mediocre works.

Budynek użyteczności
publicznej jako pomnik. Dom-pomnik marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego w Łodzi

A public building as a monument. The house-monument to Marshal Jozef Pilsudski in Lodz.

photo: Błażej Ciarkowski

At the same time, it is difficult for us to cross the boundary of granite, marble or bronze to look for non-obvious solutions. When the competition for the design of the monument to Janusz Korczak was announced , the artist Pawel Althamer intended to design... a playground. Unfortunately, he decided not to submit a work, and the first place was awarded to a "bronze, completely dead monument" that was saturated with symbolism.

History provides us with many examples of creative, and socially useful, forms of commemoration. The campaign to build schools - monuments to the Millennium of the Polish State resulted not only in several architecturally interesting realizations, but also provided a solution to one of the biggest problems in education at the time. The hospital-monument to the Polish Mother's Health Center in Lodz still serves its function today. Similarly, the Lodz House of Culture, which was built in the second half of the 1930s as a house-monument named after Marshal Józef Piłsudski.

Instead of a summary and conclusions - an appeal. The next time we consider building another bronze monument commemorating an Important Figure or a momentous Event, let's think for a moment. Perhaps a better solution would be to install a square or build a kindergarten, which would then receive appropriate patronage. Then we wouldn't have to tremble for fear that future generations with spray paint and hacksaws would destroy the monument. At most, they will dismantle the plaque and replace it with a new one of their own.

Błażej Ciarkowski

[1] C. Bielecki, More than architecture: praise of eclecticism, Olszanica 2006.
[2] J. Olender, The toppled monument to a slave trader will retain traces of the paint it was doused with,

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